Malaysia scuttles Kuala Lumpur–Singapore high speed rail project

It is one of the busiest air routes in the world and also one of the shortest. The sub-200 mike hop between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore is a ripe target for an efficient high-speed rail alternative. Alas, that project now appears to be at risk based on comments from the new Malaysian Prime Minister. The government wants to cut debt and these massive infrastructure projects are obvious targets.

It is a final decision, but it will take time because we have an agreement with Singapore.It’s not beneficial. It’s going to cost us a huge sum of money. We’ll make no money at all from this arrangement. It is only a short track. It is only going to save people one hour by taking the HSR. – Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir

While the debt challenges for the country are very real the focus on time savings for the transit link is myopic and also likely a miss on total travel time between city centers. Moreover, it only considers the local traffic and ignores potential growth for the aviation industry overall should those flights be replaced with high-speed rail. Such a move can deliver huge returns.

By removing some of the many single-aisle aircraft operations from the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur route the overall congestion at the two airports can be reduced. Or, more likely, reassigned to longer routes or those less able to benefit from convenient rail service. An integrated air/rail solution could deliver optimal connections for passengers while simultaneously growing destinations served.

But such a move is both expensive and arguably of less value to the Malaysian  airlines. A skeptic could be forgiven for believing that this move is driven in part as a repayment to AirAsia and CEO Tony Fernandes for the fallout he experienced personally and on behalf of the airline following the election. Fernandes faced significant backlash for his political position in the final days of the election, suggesting that he was bullied by the losing, Najib government into public support, even as he privately shielded his staff from abuse due to support of the new entrant.

The Kuala Lumpur – Singapore route is only the latest example where high-volume air traffic could be replaced or augmented by high speed rail. The link between Barcelona and Madrid underwent just such a transition after that upgraded rail opened in 2008. Travel between London and Brussels or Paris saw similar shifts with Eurostar; Amsterdam joined that service earlier this year. Japan and Korea have seen similar benefits while China is rapidly growing its high speed rail network, including connections between major cities.

The significant asymmetry in length of rail involved between the two countries in likely also a factor. Malaysia is on the hook for the vast majority of the multi-billion dollar project costs. And the current financial challenges the country faces undoubtedly require cuts to be made in some areas. Unfortunately it appears that transportation is the losing party this time around.

Header Image: KL Train station via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. “Call it a setback for transportation innovation.”

    Innovation? !! Trains are old tech. This would be innovative it is introduced a hyperloop between Sepang and Changi with the KL and Singapore downtowns incorporated into the route.

    1. That’s like saying planes today are the same as the Wright Flyer. This wasn’t going to be a steam engine dragging a coal tender to keep it running. Pretending that HSR is not an innovation in the rail or transportation space is myopic.

  2. ” Pretending that HSR is not an innovation in the rail or transportation space is myopic.”
    No need to pretend. The reason that a dozen or more counties have the technology is because it is state of the ordinary.
    It IS bad for the environment of course. The pollution building a so-called HSR is never offset by any later savings in pollutants. But you knew that because you read the EU report, right?

  3. I’d say it’s a wise move for Malaysia to stay away from this project. At least hold off the construction until they can afford it. Any debt involved with the communist government in China rarely benefits the general public. I’m glad people there are finally realize how influential China has been in the region. It’s time to tay away and say NO!

    1. I disagree that all debt is inherently bad, whether with China or anywhere else.

  4. No reason for the country to take on billions in debt for something that will never pay its way operationally while private companies (the airlines) are doing no the job just fine. There are many other ways for an emerging country to spend its infrastructure money on. And there’s also private bus companies plying the route for those who can’t afford flying.

    1. You think that managing – much less expanding – the aviation infrastructure comes free? Private companies may be operating some of the planes (e.g. AirAsia) but SQ and MH are heavily government invested. And the underlying infrastructure – airports and ATC and safety services and aviation authorities and so much more – are absolutely government efforts.

      Choosing to not invest in infrastructure delivers very bad results over the long term. The US is a spectacular example of such failings.

  5. @Paul: You are right. The encumbrances that both Asian and African countries have found in China bearing ‘easy’ credit are a lesson to stay away from it .

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